Brandon Frei, of Egg Harbor Township, and Gwynedd-Mercy College in Pennsylvania should have been a perfect match.
His brother attended the college, he had visited many times and it offered the nursing program he wanted.
He was accepted, enrolled — and was miserable.
“I just didn’t like living there with roommates,” the 2012 St. Augustine Preparatory School graduate said. “It wasn’t going well. I was homesick. It just wasn’t my thing.”
Each fall, thousands of local high school graduates head off to college with big plans and big dreams. Several months or a year later, some return home, attend Richard Stockton College or Atlantic Cape Community College, and rethink their futures.
The cost in lost time and money can amount to thousands of dollars if the student drops out or cannot transfer the credits earned at the first college. The issue is also getting increased national attention as colleges are pressured to make sure all students succeed, graduate in a timely manner and take on less debt.
According to data filed by New Jersey colleges with the U.S. Department of Education, about 15 percent of all freshmen who entered state four-year public colleges in the fall of 2010, or almost 1,900 students, did not return for their sophomore year in 2011. The rate was about 20 percent, or 1,800 students, at private colleges in New Jersey.
More than 7,000 full-time students also transferred into the state’s public four-year colleges in fall 2011. About 70 percent, or 4,900, came from community colleges, where they may have earned associates degrees. The rest transferred from other four-year colleges.
Stockton accepts almost 1,000 transfer students each academic year. About 75 percent come from community colleges, according to the Education Department data. The rest are typically returning to attend college closer to home.
Steven Phillips, assistant director of admissions at Stockton, said there are many reasons students don’t stay at their first-choice college. Finances are a major factor, but family circumstances and homesickness can play a role.
“It can be very romantic to think about going somewhere like Hawaii,” he said. “But then reality sets in, and they quickly become savvy consumers. I get lots of frantic calls from parents right around registration time.”
Frei was so miserable that in November, after talking it over with his mother, he left. In January, he transferred and started over at Stockton, where he is majoring in health sciences and hoping to get into the nursing program.
“Stockton’s awesome,” he said.
Ciara Barrick, 19, of Ocean City, enrolled at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., because of its literature program. She loved it there. But the financial-aid package offered her freshman year was not repeated for her sophomore year, so now she is living at home and commuting to Stockton.
“There are freshman grants that lure you into a school,” she said. “But then I realized if I stayed there, I’d have $150,000 in loans when I graduated. That’s absurd. I’d rather save up for a house for the future or pay for graduate school.”
Nicole Bachich, 20, of Upper Township, graduated from Ocean City High School with Barrick and went to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., because it’s family tradition to attend the college. She planned to major in romance languages but realized she really wants to go into nursing. Cornell has no nursing program, so she left after her freshman year and is now at Stockton as a health sciences major.
College officials said they try to accept as many credits as they can from transfer students, but it can depend on the grades, the courses and whether the student switches majors. The average grade-point average of a Stockton transfer this year is 2.5, or a C-plus.
A 2010 survey by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found the grade-point average earned at the first college and the grades earned in transferable credits are the most important factors in determining admission to a transfer college.
Because Frei left before the first semester ended, he is starting over as a freshman.
Bachich said she would have had to start over as a freshman to get into Stockton’s nursing program, so she is majoring in health sciences, then will try to complete an accelerated nursing program at another college.
Barrick said Stockton accepted all but two credits from St. John’s. She has to make up some freshman requirement courses at Stockton, which she plans to squeeze in so she can graduate in four years.
Hurricane Sandy flooded Courtney Crosby’s family home in Ventnor while she was at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Concerns about the cost of rebuilding and paying for college led her to leave after the first semester and enroll at Atlantic Cape in January. She hopes to transfer to Rutgers University in New Brunswick and is looking into whether all of her credits will transfer so she can complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.
“I really want the experience of going away to college,” she said. “I really liked it at Hofstra, but Rutgers will be less expensive, and I have friends there.”
Atlantic Cape transcript evaluator Barbara Clark said probably about half of the 275 transfer students the school accepted for 2012-13 came from four-year colleges. Most were for financial reasons. Some were just homesick.
“Sometimes they are just not as ready to go away as they think they are,” she said. “They may not get along with roommates or are not mature enough to do well on their own. We’ve had some who lasted only a week at the four-year college.”
Stockton’s Phillips said that despite all of the advice they get from counselors about picking a college, sometimes students just have to learn for themselves.
Lindsey Schwartz, 19, of Manasquan, Monmouth County, did a year at Stockton, then transferred to Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu, where she lasted one semester, working to pay rent while she attended school. The accounting major is now back at Stockton, working to transfer her credits from Hawaii.
“I really wanted to go to Hawaii,” she said. “But there wasn’t really a campus, and I didn’t anticipate how expensive it is to live there.”
She said her mom tried to talk her out of leaving Stockton but ultimately supported her.
“I’m glad I did it,” she said. “I think it’s better to do something than not do it and regret it later.”
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